Rufus Thomas was a friendly, likable guy. In fact, very few of rock & roll’s founding figures were as well-liked as Rufus Thomas. Pretty much everyone who met him had nothing but good things to say about him. From the 1940s onward, Thomas has personified Memphis music. As a recording artist, he wasn’t a major innovator, but he could always be depended upon for some good, silly, and/or outrageous fun with his soul dance tunes. He was one of the few rock or soul stars to reach his commercial and artistic peak in middle age, and was a crucial mentor to many important Memphis blues, rock, and soul musicians.
Thomas was already a professional entertainer in the mid-’30s, when he was a comedian with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He recorded music as early as 1941, but really made his mark on the Memphis music scene as a deejay on WDIA, one of the few black-owned stations of the era. He also ran talent shows on Memphis’ famous Beale Street that helped showcase the emerging skills of such influential figures as Riley “B.B.” King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon.
Rufus Thomas–Bear Cat
Thomas had his first success as a recording artist in 1953 with the tune “Bear Cat,” which was a humorous answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog”, which was later recorded by Elvis Presley. “Bear Cat” reached number three on the R&B charts, giving Sun Records its first national hit, though some didn’t have a sense of humor about the song. Sun owner, Sam Phillips was sued and subsequently lost the lawsuit for plagiarism, brought by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote “Hound Dog”. Rufus Thomas would make only one other record for Sun, but he still recorded sporadically throughout the rest of the 1950s.
Rufus Thomas–Carla’s Dad
Thomas and his daughter, Carla Thomas would become the first stars for the Stax label, for whom they recorded a duet in 1959, “‘Cause I Love You” when Stax records was still known as Satellite. In the ’60s, Carla would become one of Stax’s biggest stars. On his own, Rufus wasn’t as successful as his daughter, but recorded and released a steady stream of vaguely popular dance and novelty singles.
Rufus Thomas–Nothing Deep and Meaningful, just Good Fun
There not deep or emotional statements in Thomas’ songs, nor did he try to pretend that there were. The music itself was silly yet fun. Some elements of Thomas’ music would later be incorporated into American funk. The accent was on the stripped-down groove, and Rufus’ good-time vocals proved that he didn’t take himself or anything too seriously. Rufus Thomas’ most successful song at the time was “Walking the Dog,” which made the Top Ten in 1963, and was covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album.
Rufus Thomas–1970s Funk Pioneer
Thomas hit his commercial peak in the early ’70s, when “Do the Funky Chicken,” “(Do The) Push and Pull,” and “the Breakdown” all made the R&B Top Five. As the song titles themselves make clear, funk was now driving his sound rather than the blues or soul of earlier years. Thomas drew upon his vaudeville background to put them over on-stage with fancy footwork that displayed remarkable agility for a man well into his 50s. The collapse of the Stax label in the mid-’70s meant the end of Thomas’ career, basically, as it did for many other artists with the company. In 2001, the same year as Rufus Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, he died on December 15, at St. Francis hospital in Memphis, TN, at the age of 84. Rufus Thomas isn’t really a name that a lot of people immediately recognize, but when we hear some of his rhythms, we can all say “oh yeah, I’ve heard that.”